Exercise and Your Heart: Find Your Target Heart Rate

February 10, 2014

   As a fitness trainer helping people to maintain a healthy heart is truly close to my own heart. In the interest of your own heart health, before jumping into an exercise regimen you should clear it with your doctor.

   Regular exercise that gets your heart beating is the key. But how much? Here are some basics about understanding how to gauge the right amount.

Resting Heart Rate

   First, know your resting heart rate, which is the number of times your heart beats per minute while doing no activity. It’s best to check it in the morning after you’ve had a good night’s sleep and before you get out of bed.

   The average resting heart rate is 60 to 100 beats per minute. There are some factors to consider. The better fit you are, the lower your resting heart rate will be. And as you get older it will test higher. But in general, too low or too high of a pulse could be a sign of something that needs a doctor's attention.

   Take your pulse on the inside of the wrist on the thumb side. Use the tips of your first two fingers (not your thumb) to press lightly over the blood vessels on your wrist. Count your pulse for 10 seconds and multiply by 6 to find your beats per minute.

Maximum Heart Rate

   Maximum heart rate is the highest rate your heart should be allowed to go during a workout. Exercising at this level is awesome if you're training for the Tour de France or the New York Marathon. But for the rest of us maximum heart rate is important because it's the data point that helps map out a program.

   To find your maximum heart rate, take 220 and minus your age. If you're 53, for example, your maximum heart rate is 167.

Target Heart Rate

   Your target heart rate is the key to exercising for heart health whether it's on a stationary bike or in a sea kayak. A range between 50 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate is your target heart rate.

   So, for the 53 year-old with a maximum heart rate of 167, you multiply .50 x 167 for the low end and .85 x 167 for the high end. Rounded it's a range of 84 to 142 beats per minute. Exercise you do that gets your heart beating in the range of the target rate is what you want.

   That's a pretty wide margin. For my clients who are just starting out, I train them at their lowest end of the range and develop a program to help them to higher levels over time. A heart rate monitor is the piece of equipment that will help you keep tabs on how fast your heart is beating.

Rules of Thumb

   If you're straining at, say, 75 percent of your maximum heart rate, you're probably taking on too much and you should back it down. You don't have to exercise that hard to get a heart benefit and to stay in shape. Some people can actually achieve 50 percent of maximum heart rate with a brisk walk. Everyone is different.

   If your workout feels light at 50 percent of maximum heart rate - if you can have a conversation without having to stop talking to take breaths - the intensity is probably too low. Push yourself to exercise at a higher target heart rate.